Food For Thought
A collection of articles discussing various horticultural themes.
Below is a collection of articles that Ben has written. At the top of each article is a brief synopsis to enable you to browse through with ease and see if there is anything that grabs your attention...
"It's amazing how reading a good article can sometimes make you look at everything in a completely different way, re-evaluating what you previously thought. Other times it just puts a smile on your face and makes you pause in your day for a moment or two"
The Beginnings Of A Beautiful Arrangement
An article about the recent history of the garden that Ben manages, reflecting on the general maintenance and approach to development (January 2012).
On a cold and wet January morning I find myself in the comforting warmth of the tea shed. Outside the clouds are grey, heavy and ominous, the wind only slight but with a damp, chilling touch. Long gone are the warm summer days of soft abundance and bountiful greenery. Though under a glowing light I sit, full with excitement and optimism for the coming season. I am thumbing through a new seed catalogue and making a few more recommendations of what to grow this year. It is my fifth spring here and just as the garden and the plants within it have grown, so have the planning, responsibility and my attachment to it.
The property dates back from the Queen Anne period (1701-1712), though buildings within the garden can be traced back to the early 1600’s. Currently the garden spans just over 9 acres, encompassing ornamental borders, a formal pond, shrubberies, various topiary, a lake and woodland. At its very heart is a walled garden measuring 85 by 110 meters, where fruit, vegetables and cut flowers are grown for the house.
The current owners purchased the property in 2005 and quickly began work restoring both house and garden. A monumental task as the entire site had been experiencing slow and unintentional neglect for many years. At this daunting time my employer felt the need for guidance, and so wisely enlisted the help of well-known garden designer, Arne Maynard.
The first thing to go was a tired old rose bed at the back of the house. Exhausted and diseased, it was replaced with seven large yew spheres and a cloud box hedge that spans 72 Meters along the entire rear terrace. Sitting neatly in its location the cloud hedge works well in framing the view, hiding the changes in ground level, and most importantly, merging the boundaries between building and landscape. It also never fails to put a smile on one’s face (except the person clipping it!).
However not all changes were so radical. I remember being very impressed at both the owners’ and designer’s sensitivity to respecting and preserving as much of the history as possible. Old fruit trees had been left to see out their retirement years, whilst seedlings of Thyme and Lady’s Mantle were encouraged to run amuk through paving and alongside walls.
In the walled garden existing paths were re-defined whilst the borders were cleared of weeds and re-planted to the designer’s specification. Box hedging was brought in to provide a back to the borders as well as define the layout. Vegetable, herb and cutting beds were constructed, whilst posts were installed for the training of soft fruit. . The site was a hive of activity and excitement. Everywhere old was gently and sympathetically being blended with new, and it was a fierce attention to detail that governed all.
I began work at the garden in April 2007 and joined Tony, the existing gardener. Although a few years my senior, Tony worked tirelessly by my side as we both tackled the relentless task of weeding and watering all the new planting. The days were warm and long and all the new arrivals soon became acquainted with the existing garden. The soil was the perfect host, that holy grail of free draining yet moisture retentive, both friable and fertile. At this point small alarm bells began to ring out in my head, I could see in future years this rapid growth rate would be a large contender in upsetting the balance and diversity of the borders.
As the years passed a gradual refinement of site, planting and cultivation methods took place. The glass houses were built, stores and outbuildings organized and abandoned areas of the garden tidied. The work force evolved alongside the garden and soon became a team of four, both full and part-time members.
Behind the scenes I was busy sourcing local suppliers of various sundries, seeds and bulbs, whilst building up a network of plant nurseries. Folders and files appeared on makeshift shelves in the tea shed and my monthly “To Do” list soon became “Bible”. Conversations between the lady of the house and myself were both frequent and fruitful. It was clear to me that there was a definite direction in which the development of the garden should take, and for the majority of time it was favorable with the thoughts and ideas of my employers.
Not to say that there has never been any difference of opinion between us, in fact it is at these times that you stand to gain so much more: taking on someone else’s point of view often forces you to explore new avenues.
A prime yet small example of this springs to mind, when on one occasion last summer I was asked to cut some flowers for several table posies. With secateurs in hand I confidently gathered various shades of purple, blue and pink, with richer tones of plum and burgundy. On arrival to the house I was asked if I would go back and cut some Geum ‘Mrs Bradshaw’, a scarlet almost brick red flower full of fiery aggression and something I would of never thought to put with the existing, somewhat sophisticated selection. Later that day I returned with vegetables and salad and was asked what I thought. To my surprise the Geum worked amazingly well in the arrangement, enriching the surrounding colours with its vibrancy whilst adding a unified strength and sense of fun.
Over the last four years the management and subsequent development of the garden has been much like this. Together we decide on new areas to tackle. I put forward suggestions and various options, accompanied by drawings and plant lists. These are then shortlisted and merged together to create a final design. Then and only then will the design be implemented, often only in part, with a view to deciding on the remaining plans within the context of what has just been created.
It’s an organic development style that has gradually evolved and it takes time; an unhurried, deliberate progression that is certainly not a “quick fix”. For my part it takes some restraint of enthusiasm and forces me to expand the garden at a slower pace, but perhaps one that is more in tune with the natural rhythm of the seasons. However, I can say that working in such a way does ensure every effort is made to consider in detail the aesthetics and ambience of the new area, both individually and within the context of the entire garden.
So, as the plants begin to sir from their gloomy winter slumber, I wait to see what challenges lie ahead. Whatever successes or failures we may have this year, I’m sure all will be interesting lessons to reflect on. Within the short history that I have shared with the garden much seems to have changed, though I can’t help feeling that this is only the beginning of what could be a most beautiful arrangement.
Note: In winter the garden's soft and frothy appearance is stripped back to its hard "bones" whilst it sleeps, waiting for Spring. Though even here there is structure, interest and movement in the form of trees and shrubs, hedges and topiary, buildings and hard landscaping.
Note: In the Slip Garden fruit trees are lightly pruned and seedlings of Digitalis purpurea, Origanum laevigatum, Verbascum blattaria and Stipa tenuissima are planted, to create a more relaxed and somewhat forgotten atmosphere.
Note: The delicate dark foliage of Anthriscus ‘Ravenswing’ both complements and contrasts the bold, formal repetition of the variegated Hosta.. Here foliage gives textural interest to a shady part of the garden with an old apple tree acting as an informal focal point.
Note: The electric green hummocks of the box cloud hedge are hand clipped twice during the growing season to retain a crisp form. This is true for all of the topiary and important hedges within the garden.